There is always a certain amount of trepidation amongst gamers when a beloved franchise switches hands. A few months before the release of Halo:Reach, Bungie announced that the title would be their last entry into the series: they were passing the baton to the newly-formed 343 Industries, a development house partially composed of several Halo veterans with Frank O’Connor heading them up as the new Franchise Director. The fledgling shop’s tenure started off modestly with Halo:Waypoint, a couple of map packs for Reach, and began overseeing the various Halo merchandising efforts, leading up to the release of the Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary remake last year. By all appearances, it seemed that the series was in capable hands, but the team had yet to make their own mark on the Halo universe. Until Halo 4.
Author’s note: I had a little help in reviewing this game- my 14 year-old son and hardcore Halo fan, Griffin Dunn. A grizzled veteran of every Halo game to date, Griffin’s skill level far outstrips my own, and he has been a harsh critic of the previous game’s lower difficulty level- even on Legendary. I thought it would be foolish not to take advantage of his granular knowledge of the games and universe, so I asked him to write up his own review of the game. While the score represents my opinion, I have woven in some excerpts from Griffin’s, and they are credited as such. I hope you enjoy them!
It’s been 5 years since the release of Halo 3, and this installment picks up at roughly the same amount of time after going into cryosleep aboard the adrift rear half of the UNSC frigate Forward Unto Dawn; Master Chief’s last words had been “wake me if you need me”, and Cortana does just that, propelling the two of them into a campaign that I found to be much more character-driven and personal than any of the previous games. The relationship between Cortana and Master Chief is explored in much greater depth, and Cortana’s deteriorating condition due to her being in operation beyond the standard A.I. lifespan (“rampancy”) underscores the care and respect these two characters have for each other. Conversely, the introduction of an actual Forerunner- The Didact- and his Promethean forces bring the mythological underpinnings of the franchise front and center, resulting in a story arc that is much more focused and epic in scale. With a campaign clocking in at around 6-8 hours, Halo 4’s level design stays challenging but never too brutal for an average player such as myself on the normal setting, and I found myself persisting with even the most difficult areas in order to get to the next juicy chunk of narrative. The high-adventure flavor of Halo 4 suits the franchise well, escalating things to greater, more operatic heights while at the same time grounding it with a more personal character-driven emotional core.
As a long time fan of the Halo series, I can safely say Bungie left us in good hands with 343i. I usually breezed through the “Legendary” difficulty when I played the other Halo titles, but the Halo 4 campaign was very challenging even on the “Normal” difficulty! The new enemies, challenges, and the emotional stress between The Master Chief and Cortana is just as much an epic story, if not more, than the original saga.
While you will face familiar enemies by way of a Covenant splinter group, notably absent this time around are the Flood (excepting the new multiplayer mode). I had no love for the parasitic space zombie-makers in the previous games (there were times where I felt previous campaigns had been artificially extended by throwing wave after wave of the irritating little buggers), and their presence is not missed. In their place stand the formidable Prometheans- a new faction armed with Forerunner technology. While all three types- Crawlers, Knights, and Watchers- are considerably challenging, the ones most likely to induce controller throwing are the Watchers, airborne snipers with the ability to resurrect downed Knights (who in turn spawn Watchers) and love to hightail it to safety once you get a bead on them and get a shot or two in. Coming across a group of Knights and Crawlers can quickly turn into a quagmire if the Knights are allowed to deploy sentries and Watchers at will. Of course, this new faction brings with it a whole new weapon set, with favorites being the Supressor, a high ammo capacity automatic weapon that quickly became my go-to choice for just about any enemy, the Light Rifle, a highly capable ranged weapon that has a satisfying punch at any distance, and the Pulse Grenade, a great way to clear a large area with a nice little one/two punch, damaging foes on initial deployment and following up with a delayed explosive blast. On the vehicular side of things, Halo 4 seems to have caught the mech bug with the Mantis, and I am NOT complaining!
The new enemies really gave me that same feeling of meeting the Covenant for the first time in the original Halo… not to mention that the new Promethean weapons are awesome too!
Graphically, Halo 4 is by far the most visually stunning of the series; We finally get to see Master Chief in full 720p resolution, and the amount of detail 343 lavished on all of the skins, models, and environments amounts to an impressive upgrade in clarity and eye-candy. Art direction is superb, and the visual style of the Forerunner structures and tech so prominent in the series translates well into the Prometheans and their weaponry. Texture lag is apparent at times, but not often enough to make it worrisome.
I like the Master Chief’s new armor because it reminds me of his original Mark V armor, kind of like 343i is showing that the new saga is a “New Beginning of Halo”. The new design of the Covenant makes them more reptilian looking . Even grunts appear intimidating! The new HUD (heads up display) lets you navigate through the game much easier, telling you things like when an enemy throws a grenade or where your objective is located. Everything about the game, the armor, scenery, and heads-up display are visually stunning.
While the familiar Halo theme is (of course) ever present, the choral and guitar elements have been subdued greatly in favor of more electronic stylings. Don’t worry, though, Halo 4 hasn’t succumbed to the dubstep trend in game soundtracks of late, most likely due to composer Neil Davidge. Neil was notably responsible for the production on Massive Attack’s sublime and atmospheric 90’s classic Mezzanine (the album the House theme Teardrop appeared on). Combine that with the excellent foley and SFX production supplied by Sotaro Tojima (Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots) and you’ve got a sound that sets itself apart from previous titles without sounding out of place in the slightest.
As seen in the making of Halo 4 videos, they recorded the sounds of actual weaponry and morphed them to sound futuristic. Not only does it add a whole new level of surrealism to the game, but it sounded great! The voice casting was fabulous, (especially Steve Downes as the Master Chief) and I liked the way the Covenant went back to speaking in an “alien” language like in the first Halo. The grunts sounded very much more “alien” instead of little kids yelling “DEMON!” at you like in the originals. The new soundtrack was good and sounded very dramatic and heroic, but I have to say that I miss the epic guitar solos that they would have in the original games, especially the Micheal Salvatori guitar solos in the main theme.
One of the most defining and successful aspects of Halo, of course, is multiplayer. Long a mainstay of Xbox Live since it’s introduction in Halo 2, competitive multiplayer has evolved over the years, often taking on attributes made popular by other games of the time. Yes, the new custom weapon loadouts and player customizations are highly influenced by the Call of Duty series, but they fit well. The bottom line is, players now have more tools at their disposal to build their Spartan warrior into a fighting machine that matches their personal style of gameplay, and the standard of player progression unlocking the ability to ‘buy’ more features beyond just new weaponry to combat enhancements, armor abilities and specializations matures the gameplay considerably. Seriously, who doesn’t want to start out a match with plasma grenades or literally anything other than a plain old assault rifle?
One of my favorite Multiplayers of the series, all of the new features and gametypes are very fun and balanced. Gaining “Spartan Points” to customize your loadouts and upgrades is by far one of my favorite things about the new multiplayer. You can make your own loadouts of what rifle/pistol/grenades/armor abilities that you can spawn with. The upgrades that you can buy give you improvements such as unlimited sprint or being able to still see your radar while using the scope on a precision weapon.You can also unlock armor every time you advance a couple ranks which is a feature that started with Halo 3. But in Halo 4 you can customize a lot more of your armor such as visor color, leg armor, arm armor, etc. It advances Halo’s multiplayer to a whole new level.
They may be labeled ‘War Games’ now, but all of the same multiplayer modes from previous Halo games are there with exception to Firefight (more on that later), and split-screen co-op continues to be a mainstay. 343i added the new Flood mode, which is basically like a team version of infection. Some other notable changes include the ability to join games in-progress, weapons appearing on the map via drop-pods and called out on the HUD with a distance ticker, and instant respawn time in Team Slayer. Sprinting is now an innate ability instead of an armor ability, and that combined with the instant respawn makes for a much faster-paced and intense experience. Halo 4 ships with 10 multiplayer maps included, with 9 more maps available in 3 separate downloadable packs for purchase in the coming months. This DLC is included free with the Halo War Pass or the special edition of the game.
In some game types, if you get a killing spree, lots of assists, etc., you can call in an ordinance drop on the D-pad that gives an option of a power weapon of your choice,such as an Energy Sword or Railgun.
The most ambitious enhancement 343 brought to the multiplayer experience lies in Spartan Ops, the successor to Firefight. While it definitely feels like an evolutionary step of Firefight (originally featured in Halo 3:ODST), Each mission is interwoven into the narrative of Halo 4’s single-player campaign, providing further context to the main plot putting you into the role of one of Master Chief’s fellow Spartans from the UNSC Infinity. Naturally, your Spartan is the same customized warrior you’ve been playing with in War Games. Halo 4 ships with the first 5 episodic missions, and will continue as a free weekly series. Objectives vary between the missions, keeping things pretty fresh, and the promise of new weekly content going forward is a pretty spectacular commitment on the part of 343, adding significant value to the co-operative playing experience. I’m curious to see where things go and how they all fit into the overall story arc.
The action packed episodic multiplayer adventures that are Spartan Ops make a great new addition to the franchise. Spartan Ops consists of short missions that are recommended to play with a friend, but you can play solo if you please. New missions premiere every week, so it’s kind of like another campaign on it’s own.
Halo 4 represents a new beginning for the fan-favorite series, and 343 Industries has crafted a very polished experience. The core multiplayer experience breaks no new ground and borrows from others a bit, and Spartan Ops is more evolutionary than revolutionary, but these are minor quibbles and they make a great addition to the game. By far their greatest success lies in a more nuanced realization of the series’ main protagonist, Master Chief, and while the campaign works exceptionally well as a stand-alone narrative, it leaves our hero in a place that opens the story to exciting new possibilities in the next two installments.